Monday, September 14, 2009

The case for Vegetarianism

First full disclosure. Strictly speaking I'm not a vegetarian. I eat Seafood, eggs, and dairy. I don't eat poultry or beef, and my eggs and dairy are free-range, local, and organic, but still, more strict vegetarians and, of course, vegans might say I am not "really" a vegetarian. I am what is sometimes called a Pesci-Vegetarian (I eat fish and other seafood, but no other meat).Now to the argument.

I begin with a negative claim: I do not think it is always morally wrong to eat animals. It is natural and some groups of people (e.g. Eskimo living in the Alaskan wilderness) must eat animals to survive. It seems to me, however, that we have good reasons to refrain from eating some animals.

The special features that human beings possess are typically regarded as giving them special moral status. In philosophy we call this "personhood" and speak of those who have these properties as "persons." The relevant moral features for attributing personhood to a being are: Self-awareness, rational decision making, and the ability to think abstractly.

Some animals appear to have these faculties, perhaps not to the degree that we have and exercise them, but they have them to a degree. For instance, there is good evidence that Chimps, Dolphins, and some Whales have these capacities and are therefore "persons"

Of course most of us don't eat these particular animals - although they are often hunted and killed for human use - so it may not mean much. But we don't eat Dogs and Cats either (at least not in Western cultures) and pigs are as intelligent as dogs so why do we eat Pigs? We regard Dogs as too smart and too lovable to eat, if pigs are comparable on both these points, then we have no rational ground for eating pigs. If we lived in an environment where we had to eat meat to survive and pigs were the the only - or one of the few - animals we could kill and eat, this would be perfectly understandable. But we live in a technological society where we can live in full health and receive full nutritional value without eating Pigs. So what then is the case for eating them?

There is, in fact, a good case against eating mammals in general. The late Carl Sagan argued convincingly in The Dragons of Eden that "love seems to be an invention of the mammals" (67). Given the fact that mammals give live birth and their young need an extended period of care by their parents, love is an evolutionary necessity that begins with mammalian life.

We humans place a great value on love. We consider it the most wonderful thing we can experience, the meaning and value of our life. Many even declare that "God is love." Clearly the ability to love is something quite remarkable. Of course, lower mammals don't "love" in the strict sense. The argument is that the genesis of love is present in the mammals. Mammals also have the highest intelligence of animal life.

Most mammals certainly don't qualify as persons, but the qualities of personhood are present in most of the mammals we eat; albeit in a rudimentary and primitive form.

As I said before, none of this would be a problem if we had to eat mammals to survive or to be healthy. But we don't. There is extremely strong evidence that a vegetarian diet is not only healthy, but healthier than a carnivorous diet.

None of this of course applies to poultry. And I have no argument against eating poultry in principle. We must remember, however, the cruel treatment of animals in commercial factory farming.

The following video is typical of Factory farming (Warning there are graphic images here):

This to me is the main argument. Eating animals is not, at least for me, a serious moral failing. But the cruel, brutal, and painful way factory farms treat animals is absolutely horrifying. I think we have a moral duty not to support factory farms. Of course, one could buy all ones meat from small local farms that treat their animals with far greater compassion. In fact, this is what I do with my eggs and dairy and for this very reason. But many cannot afford this. And I still think my argument that we should avoid eating mammals because of the level of their intellect and their capability of feeling love (at least at some level) holds even for well treated mammals.

Finally, it follows from this that we cannot morally kill animals to wear them as fur or leather either. Many people have a gut reaction to all of this. They hold that we simply have a right to eat animals, to treat them however we want, and to use them for whatever purpose we see fit - no matter how cruel our treatment of them. In response I ask some questions, what are your arguments for this? On what grounds do you believe we can torture animals by forcing them into horrible living conditions? On what grounds do you bestow on human beings the right to freely abuse other creatures?

Bookmark and Share


  1. Matt,
    While I agree with all of what you say in defense of moral considerations toward animals (most of them) you state in the second paragraph that it is "natural" to eat meat.Do you mean that we are omnivores, and so in certain circumstances eating the flesh of other animals is acceptable? Is this a version of the Naturalist Fallacy in the sense that what is deemed natural is good?

  2. Let me preface this by saying that I accept your conclusion that in some circumstances humans eating meat and using other parts of animals is morally impermissible. That being said, your conclusion is quite weak, to the point of irrelevance, perhaps. Almost anyone would agree with this conclusion. For instance, eating an animal while it is still living, barring Indiana Jones movies.

    Next, we do not eat dogs and cats due merely to their perceived intelligence and cuteness. First, many dogs are simply ugly and are not cuddly, as with cats. Dogs and cats, except where food is scarce, have uses to humans that go beyond pigs. Dogs can hunt, herd, protect people, guard homes, pull sleds and keep vermin and other predators from other agricultural products. Cats are similar, but they are much better at keeping vermin away from good stuffs. These animals are highly valuable as something other than food. Animals that are our foodstuffs and clothing just do not have this value.

    You state that some mammals have a degree of what makes humans 'persons'. This is vague. Where is the cut off point to make someone a person and not a person? This needs to be clarified before we can accept this part of your argument.

  3. Hey Mr. C

    Here is my reply.

    1) I do not think there is a firm line between persons and non-persons. I think it is a matter of degree.

    2) I reject the argument that we don't eat dogs and cats because they are cute and useful. That is probably why we don't eat them. You are right there. But I am talking about rational defense. We have no rational reason for not eating dogs, but eating pigs. My argument was that we should not eat mammals because they have faculties of reason and love (albeit to a low degree in many species). Since I do not know when personhood begins, I think these faculties are worth respecting.

    3) I don't argue simply and vaguely that some people in some circumstances should not eat some animals. My argument is that we who live in an industrial society where we can get all our nutrients from a vegetarian diet have no reason to eat meet: we don't have to eat animals, so why should we? If the argument is that "we like it" or they "taste good" then why can't cannibals eat other humans?

    4) none of this is my main argument. My central argument was and is that most of our meat is from animals who live a brutal and tortured existence on commericial factory farms. This is cruel and vile, and should not be supported.

    5) But yes, you are right that my conclusion is weak. I do no think we can never eat animals in principle. If we need to eat animals in order to live, then we must. Also, animals killed by traditional family farmers are typically treated humanely, live out their lives, and are killed mercifully ... I don't think it is immoral to do this. I can't personally eat meat even in this situation, but I do NOT think it is necessarily a moral duty to refrain from eating meet from animals raised and killed humanely; call it a "personal moral preference."

    So my conclusion is meant to be weak. I'm not making a strong claim .. I am making the claim that (a) factory farming is immoral, and so we ought not to eat meat from factory farms, and (b) there are solid moral reasons to avoid eating mammals (though not poultry and seafood) because they have social structures, families, and some higher order thought .. but (c) these "solid moral reassons" only apply to people living in advanced societies who can get their nutrients without eating meat. Finally, (d) animals raised humanely and killed mercifully may be eaten, it's not cruel or evil to eat them. Personally however I am uncomfortable with eating mammals for the reasons I explained.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I suppose I could be justly accussed of committing the naturalistic fallacy there. What I meant was something like this ... some animals have to eat other animals to survive. In most pre-industrial or poor human societies humans need to kill animals in order to survive, or at least in order to be healthy. Therefore, I think that eating animals in such circumstances is permissible and non-problematic. It is necessary killing.

    I find it problematic to eat some animals (mammals at least) when we can have a perfectly healthy diet without doing so. In this case it seems like needless killing.

    I would have no trouble eating poultry and only refrain from doing so because the vast majority of poultry is cruelly treated in factory farms.


Comments from many different points of view are welcome. But I will not publish any comments that are hateful, insulting, or filled with profanity. I welcome and encourage dialogue and disagreement but will not publish any hate speech.